Jill Lepore teaches American history at Harvard and frequently contributes to The New Yorker, among other magazines. She’s a witty, deeply learned, but accessible writer and thinker, and her newest essay is a history of a particular kind of political language: allusions and appeals to the “original” intents / ideas of the men pop culture calls the Founding Fathers. One might think that conservatives are the ones who tend to use this rhetoric, but as Lepore shows it has actually been a tool for abolitionists, gun nuts, antiwar activists, white supremacists, black civil rights warriors, Howard Zinn, Richard Nixon, and now, most loudly, that gang of older, affluent whites led by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (among others) which calls itself The Tea Party. (You know, they’re the ones who hate high taxes and so despise Barack Obama because he cut taxes by $300 billion during his first year in office.) Lepore’s approach and general attitude toward various movements in past and present U.S. politics is good-humored; nonetheless, she emphasizes that while there have been plenty of annoying, self-righteous “originalists” on the American left, the right is where you go to find truly batshit, destructive appeals to the Fathers:
Originalism in the courts is certainly a matter for debate. Jurisprudence stands on precedent, on the stability of the laws. But originalism has long since reached beyond the courts. Set loose in the culture, it looks like history but it’s not. It is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution. The history that Tea Partiers want to go back to is as much a fiction as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
A lot of this stuff is founded on those old American pastimes, anti-intellectualism and historical ignorance–Gore Vidal is right to call us “The United States of Amnesia.” Lepore, however, argues that there is within this a more particular problem: few of us listen much to professional historians. TV has no use for them. Rarely does someone who isn’t a Washington, D.C.-based journalist get interviewed on MSNBC or CNN or wherever. The declining role of historians as public intellectuals
left a great deal of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business. Today’s reactionary history of early America, reductive, unitary, and, finally, dangerously anti-pluralist, ignores slavery and compresses a quarter century of political contest into “the founding,” as if the ideas contained in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” severing the bonds of empire, were no different from those in the Constitution, establishing a strong central government. “Who’s your favorite Founder?” Beck asked Palin in January. “Um, you know, well,” she said. “All of them.”
The essay is compelling. You can read it here.